Does Revelation 20 Support Judgment According to Works?

I received a great question recently from a friend of mine, on judgment according to works. He had heard me teach that although we are justified by faith, we are also judged according to our works, and he basically agreed. But he wanted to know how that idea cohered with the fact that there are two sets of books in Revelation 20:11-15--the books of works, and the book of life--and that entry into the new creation was dependent only on our names being in the latter. In other words, he was saying, doesn't Revelation deny that final judgment is according to works? And if so, how does that cohere with Matthew 25 and Romans 2, which seem to affirm it?

Here's how I replied.

It’s probably worth saying that I think I’d differ very slightly from your reading of Revelation 20 on this one. The exegetical question there is whether the distinction between “books were opened” and “another book was opened” is (a) the distinction between the books of works and the book of (effectively) grace, or (b) the distinction between the books of the wicked and the book of the righteous. If (a), then you’re right; the righteous are not really judged according to deeds at all. If (b), then the picture is different: we are all judged according to works, but all those in the book of life are regarded as righteous anyway.

I think there are two exegetical reasons to prefer (b). The first is that both v12 and v13 explain that “all were judged according to their works / what they had done.” This implies that the “other book” is also a book which records works, even though it is a book of life. The second is that the “books were opened” is obviously drawing from Daniel 7:10, in which the books represent the judgment of wicked pagan nations, and the book of life refers back to Daniel 12:1, where the righteous are delivered.. So I think Revelation is contrasting the judgment of the wicked (“books were opened”) with the judgment of the righteous (“another book was opened”), rather than contrasting judgment by works with judgment by grace/faith/other. Greg Beale is good on this in his big Revelation commentary. If all of that is right, then there is no conflict with Matt 25, Rom 2 or anything else (and I continue to read Rom 2 with Schreiner, Gathercole, Wright et al as referring to a judgment for all according to works).

That all makes the pastoral question simpler, I think: what about deathbed conversions? And the answer here is that Scripture never goes there (at least into the mechanism of how this works)—but it seems to me that the repentance of (say) the brigand on the cross is itself an astonishing piece of spiritual fruit. I don’t think the idea of judgment according to works has to become a modern version of the treasury of merit, where good deeds balance out bad ones; if I did, I think I would be perilously close to abandoning the gospel of grace, and/or becoming a medieval Catholic! It is surely in the nature of biblical repentance and faith that our previous sins are washed away, so we could speculate (again, since the Bible doesn’t) that the dying brigand only has a few hours worth of “works” to consider, and that they were done in faith. Generally, though, I think the “deathbed conversion” scenario is thrown in more as a reactive response to a new idea (judgment according to works doesn’t sound like it can be right, so there must be a prooftext somewhere—quick, get the thief on the cross!); interestingly I find the same thing happens when you say baptism is part of becoming a Christian.

As it happens, in this morning’s devotions I was reading Obadiah (coincidentally) and then Jonah, and it hit me how beautiful the canonical balance is there: judgment of Edom according to deeds, and then the forgiveness of Nineveh despite their only action (it seems) being to repent. I think that’s a helpful thing to bear in mind when preaching or talking about the biblical balance between the two, not least in Paul and Revelation.

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